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IntelliTech University

Thermal Print Methods

An IntelliBar label printer provides the foundation of your labeling system. It is capable of either thermal transfer or direct thermal printing, the choice of which depends upon several factors explained below.

Which printing method to choose: Thermal Transfer or Direct Thermal?

Thermal Transfer

  • Label life longer than 6 months and may be exposed to environmental extremes (UV rays, heat, moisture)
  • Uses a ribbon and thermal transfer labels

Direct Thermal

  • Label life is less than 6 months and should not be exposed to environmental extremes.
  • Does not use a ribbon
  • Requires direct thermal labels

Thermal Transfer Printing

Thermal Transfer Printhead

For most applications, thermal transfer printing provides the superior solution because the image produced is the highest quality and the most durable. In many cases it provides the only solution. Thermal transfer printing creates an image by melting ink on a film ribbon and transferring it to a receiving material. Heating elements inside the printhead selectively turn on and off in a pattern thereby forming the printed image (alpha-numeric, bar codes, and graphics). Thermal transfer printing uses various types of ribbons which work with specifically matched label stocks.

Benefits of thermal transfer printing include:

  • high speed- provides high throughput depending on the model, the IntelliBar can print labels at up to 12 inches per second.
  • flexibility- the IntelliBar can print a wide variety of labels using various combinations of label stocks and ribbons.
  • environmental stability- the long lasting, durable image produced by the thermal transfer method will not fade in response to environmental variables such as heat, cold, moisture, or exposure to UV (ultra violet) rays/sunlight.
  • superior scannability- labels can be scanned by both visible-light and infrared bar code readers.
  • long label life- labels produced by the thermal transfer method have a long life.
  • increased printhead life - ribbons protect the printhead from abrasion caused by label contact.

Direct Thermal Printing

Direct Thermal Printhead

Direct thermal printing is acceptable for some applications which do not require a long label life or are not exposed to environmental extremes. Because no ribbon is used, direct thermal printing eliminates ribbon considerations. However, you must choose labels that are specifically designed for direct thermal printing. Direct thermal printing creates an image by causing a chemical reaction on a specially coated paper that, when heated, turns black thus creating the image.

It should be noted that direct thermal printing generally requires slower printing speeds. Printhead life is reduced as a result of abrasion caused by direct contact between the printhead and the label material. Printhead life is also shortened as a result of higher printing temperatures required by direct thermal printing. These elevated temperatures amplify thermal shock to the printhead.


Benefits of direct thermal printing include:

  • no ribbon required- direct thermal printing uses only label stock.
  • cost savings- the overall cost of direct thermal printing is generally lower than thermal transfer printing because only direct thermal label stock is used; however, direct thermal label stock is generally more expensive than thermal transfer label stock.